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Turkey: Prime Minister Gets Mixed Reviews On U.S. Visit

  • Jean-Christophe Peuch

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan wraps up a five-day visit to the United States today. The Turkish leader and his foreign minister, Abdullah Gul, secured support for Ankara's latest initiatives toward a peaceful resolution of the division of Cyprus. They also obtained U.S. assurances that Iraq's territorial integrity will be preserved, a major concern for Turkey. But some in Turkey believe the visit did not bring as many results as may seem at first glance.

Prague, 30 January 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The Turkish prime minister's visit to the United States is receiving mixed reviews.

Political observers in both countries are generally hailing Recep Tayyip Erdogan's trip as a successful attempt at easing tensions generated by the U.S.-led war on Iraq. His visit was highlighted by talks at the White House with U.S. President George W. Bush on 28 January.

"We are today as robustly committed to [our] alliance as we ever were," Erdogan wrote this week in "The Wall Street Journal" daily. Most Turkish newspapers are underlining the importance Erdogan's visit has played in repairing ties damaged after Ankara last year refused to allow U.S. troops to use its territory for an attack on Iraq. They also are welcoming what they describe as Washington's determination to preserve its strategic alliance with NATO's only Muslim country.

Ankara also is concerned that the two main Kurdish factions that have controlled northern Iraq since the end of the Gulf War may lay claim to the vast oil fields of the region.
Yet, some discordant voices can be heard. "Erdogan cannot obtain what he wants from Bush," Turkey's left-wing "Cumhuriyet" daily writes today, commenting on the delicate issue of Kurdish autonomy in Iraq.

In comments to reporters, Bush said he had assured Erdogan that the U.S. is committed to preserving Iraq's territorial integrity. Bush's statement was generally interpreted as a rejection of possible Kurdish demands for independence or greater autonomy when Washington returns sovereignty to the Iraqis later this year. Turkey fears the Kurds may put forward such demands.

Ankara also is concerned that the two main Kurdish factions that have controlled northern Iraq since the end of the Gulf War may lay claim to the vast oil fields of the region. Such developments, Turkey claims, might rekindle demands for autonomy in its own predominantly Kurdish southeastern provinces.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, who met with his Turkish counterpart, Abdullah Gul, in Washington yesterday, said Washington will see that the Kurds retain "some degree of autonomy" under the aegis of a central government.

Also yesterday, U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher attempted to address Turkish concerns that Iraq's oil resources might be given to Kurds.

"We and the Turks agree fully -- and I think all the neighbors do -- that Iraq's territorial integrity needs to be maintained, that Iraq needs to operate as a single state, that the natural resources of Iraq need to be owned by the Iraqi people, and therefore be in the hands, or be the responsibility, of the central government," he said.

However, pressed to elaborate on Washington's stance regarding the degree of autonomy Kurds might eventually obtain, Boucher said this is an issue members of the Iraqi Governing Council -- five of whom are Kurds -- will have to resolve.

Some U.S. media this week quoted members of Erdogan's entourage as saying that, in the final analysis, Washington had failed to allay Ankara's concerns and that Turkish leaders remain worried about U.S. plans for Iraq's future territorial setup.

In a clear gesture toward Ankara, Washington this week announced it has included the People's Congress of Kurdistan -- formerly known as the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) -- on its list of terrorist organizations. The U.S. said its troops in northern Iraq will treat Turkish Kurdish rebels based in the area accordingly. Ankara blames the PKK for a bloody separatist war in the 1980s and 1990s. The PKK has long been listed as a terr

Some Turkish commentators have interpreted the U.S. move as heralding possible military action against Turkey's Kurdish separatists based in northern Iraq. Others believe the U.S. statement is a mere declaration of intent aimed at appeasing Turkey, with few people expecting Washington to launch an offensive against the PKK or its successors.

Also, the U.S. this week backed Turkey's efforts to press for a peaceful settlement of the Cyprus issue. In comments made to reporters after talks with Bush, Erdogan said he had asked the U.S. to take part in peace negotiations and to press the Greek Cypriot side to resume talks on a reunification plan drafted by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

Reunification talks collapsed last March after both Cypriot sides failed to reach an agreement on key issues, such as the future territorial setup of the Mediterranean island and the transfer of territories.

In a surprise move, Turkey's civilian and military leaders said on 23 January that they supported Annan's blueprint and will press the Turkish administration of Northern Cyprus to go back to the negotiating table.

Turkish President Ahmet Necdet Sezer's foreign-policy adviser, Sermet Atacanli, today reiterated that Ankara is committed to finding a rapid solution to the Cyprus problem: "The Turkish side is ready to display every possible effort in order to find a fair and lasting solution to the Cyprus issue in 2004."

Cyprus is due to join the European Union on 1 May. Failure to agree on a reunification deal by that date will technically leave Turkey -- which has an estimated 35,000 troops on the island -- occupying part of the bloc.

It also raises the prospect of Cyprus vetoing Ankara's own EU membership bid. Turkish leaders hope to open formal entry talks with Brussels as early as next year.

Greek Cypriot President Tassos Papadopoulos said on 27 January that he is ready to resume talks, but warned the island must join the EU as a single state and not as two separate political entities, as the Turkish side insists.

Speaking to reporters after meeting with Gul, Powell yesterday called for an urgent solution to Cyprus' division. But the U.S. secretary of state did not mention Washington's possible direct involvement in the talks.

"I think it is time for all of us to put pressure on all sides to get a resolution to this difficult situation. It's going on for so long, and I think we're getting close to a solution. So, to the extent that we can assist the [UN] secretary-general in his efforts and assist all the sides in coming together on the basis of the secretary-general's plan, then we will do so," Powell said.

Annan has welcomed Washington's offer of support. But yesterday he played down Turkish calls for U.S. intervention on the Cyprus issue, saying he would rather have reunification talks resume under the mediation of a UN official.

Commenting on the outcome of Erdogan's visit in the Istanbul-based "Hurriyet" daily, columnist Emin Colasan sounded particularly disappointed today, noting Turkey had not made substantial progress on either Cyprus or Iraq -- the two top items on Erdogan's agenda.
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